London (AFP) – Memories of the chasing England were given by France’s Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele remain fresh in Harry Kane’s mind as he contemplates his side’s path to the World Cup.
England are on course to secure a ticket to Russia ahead of Friday’s qualifier against Malta in Ta’Qali, but recent friendly games have laid bare the extent to which they trail behind the global elite.
In June, the brilliance of Mbappe and Dembele enabled France to weather the mid-game dismissal of Raphael Varane and beat England 3-2 at Stade de France, but rather than being cowed, Kane was inspired.
“I don’t think it’s daunting,” the Tottenham Hotspur striker told reporters at England’s St George’s Park headquarters this week.
“At the end of the day, we only lost 3-2. I know they were down to 10 men for the majority of the second half. I don’t think we’re that far away.
“We’re a little bit behind at the minute. France are an extremely good team with a lot of good players to choose from, but so are we.
“The most important thing for us now is to qualify for the World Cup and we can do that by winning the next two games. If that’s done and dusted then we can really start preparing.”
England are two points clear at the top of UEFA Group F and can take a giant step towards qualification by beating minnows Malta and then defeating closest rivals Slovakia at Wembley on Monday.
Gareth Southgate’s side would be even closer to their objective had it not been for a chaotic finish to their last group game against Scotland in June, when Kane’s stoppage-time equaliser rescued a 2-2 draw.
Including the Hampden stalemate, England have won just one of their last five matches.
In addition to the loss to France, a 1-0 defeat by Germany and 2-2 draw with Spain underlined that they remain some distance from the finished article.
– Captaincy focus –
In this camp, injuries have deprived Southgate of Spurs left-back Danny Rose and Liverpool midfielder Adam Lallana, while Wayne Rooney’s international career has come to an end at his own behest.
But the squad is otherwise well stocked, meaning Southgate can use Friday’s game at Malta’s National Stadium to hone defensive partnerships and test attacking configurations.
As ever with England, the bicep around which the captain’s armband will be stretched is focusing attentions, with Kane and Jordan Henderson among those in contention to succeed Rooney as full-time skipper.
Victory against Malta, ranked 190th in the world, should be a formality and Kane accepts that given England’s resources, they will not get much credit for anything they achieve in qualifying.
“It’s fair enough. At the end of the day, we’ve not won anything for a long time,” he said. “We’ve had some good teams in the past, but we’ve still won nothing.
“From our point of view, we’re in a situation where we’ve got to try and win something and that would be one of the biggest achievements in English history.
“The teams that have gone past have found it difficult, we’ve found it difficult in recent years, but we have to somehow change that around and see what happens next summer.”
Friday’s match represents the first half of a British double-header for Malta, who play Scotland in Glasgow on Monday.
“This is a very difficult match against England as they are the best team,” said Malta coach Pietro Ghedin.
“But I bank on the players’ pride to try and give everything they have as that is our only tool of trying to upset our opponents.”
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